An Evening of Fine Dining at Lumière
One of the things I like to do once (or twice) a year is to hit a very exclusive or expensive restaurant with a few friends, though I do tend to feel better about it when there is an occasion attached to the visit (Happy Birthday Kelly 🙂 ). My first visit to a truly fine eatery was earlier this year when I went down to WEST, Vancouver's finest restaurant for two years running. That was a celebration of my independence from the daily grind of working for "The Man" and marked my start of becoming "The Man".
Since WEST, my passion for food just exploded. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would be able to sample all the wonderful cuisine that I drooled over while watching Food TV at work. The bar was raised, and I found myself critiquing every restaurant that I went to based on this golden standard. I had developed the taste for fine dining. The most annoying part of this taste is that a lot of people I know aren't crazy enough to come with me. I can already hear my parents lecturing me for even THINKING about spending an amount similar to a good tax return on a meal. The standard I set previously was $400 for two people at WEST.
Rob Feenie is one of Canada's top chefs and has written several cook books, has his own TV show, and is famous worldwide for his culinary skills. Rob is known for using fresh and exotic ingredients in his dishes which has also led to the main criticism's of his cook books: no one can buy the ingredients that he uses to make his dishes. The stuff just isn't available at the local grocery store (excuse me but where do you keep the Foie Gras and Truffles?). Rob received his Iron Chef designation when he beat Iron Chef Morimoto in "The Crab Battle" on Iron Chef America. It was ironic that a French trained chef could beat a Japanese Cuisine master at making a "California Roll". I guess that's drama for you!
Last evening, I had the opportunity to try one of Vancouver's most famous high end restaurant owned by the Iron Chef Slayer himself, Rob Feenie. His concept Lumière, is nestled in the trendy Kitsilano area of Vancouver. The Kitsilano area is riddled with trendy fusion inspired places like "The Eatery" which serves up a West Coast interpretation of Japanese cuisine. One has to wonder if Rob got some inspiration for his "Crab Battle" from there. There are also many pubs, coffee shops, and stores that seem like a total clash to what Lumière represented. Even though Kitsilano was not known as a destination for this sort of cuisine, Rob Feenie had the vision and the star power to draw people to the area. Rob also has a more casual eatery known as Feenies that seems to draw the regular Kitsilano crowd. It's located right beside Lumière and serves brunch, lunch, and dinner. After visiting Feenies recently, I have to say that there is definitely nothing regular about the food there.
Lumière was Vancouver's best restaurant for seven years running as voted by Vancouver Magazine. However, in 2005, Lumière lost the title to WEST. WEST also won the top chef award the same year. In order to claim the title back, Lumière shut down to do a major renovation of their kitchen costing over 1.2 million dollars in March of 2005. However, Lumière still lost (OUCH) as WEST was once again on top for 2006. Having experienced WEST, it was time to figure out what went wrong at Lumière and to see if Vancouver Magazine's findings matched my own.
My first impression of Lumière was: Wow. The dining room of Lumière was very intimate with low ceilings and a seating area that housed only 50 guests. The chairs were obviously made for a lengthy dining experience; they were extremely comfortable. The chocolate veneer of the wood trim mixed with the large filaments of the dimly lit bulbs presented a very cozy atmosphere. The windows facing the street were frosted providing a bit of privacy. A large chainmail curtain was featured in the middle of the dining area, separating the two halves of the dining room.
Our waiter, Simon, was very apologetic when he informed me that the valet was unable to start my car to drive it to the secured parking area, shortly after seating us. Apparently, the valet couldn't get the steering lock to disengage. I guess after driving all sorts of high end European vehicles, the Subaru was slumming it. After that was taken care of, we were joined by John Chow and his family; the only other person I know crazy enough to do this with me. John has a picture recap of the evenings meal. I brought my camera along, but I had forgotten to put the memory card back in. However I didn't mind not being able to take pictures. It made it easier for me to relax and enjoy the evening. Plus, I got the feeling that people were looking at us when John was happily snapping away.
When it was time to order, the men (John, his father in-law, and myself) ordered from the Kitchen Menu, which contained the most meat as well as the foie gras. The ladies (Kelly, Sarah, and Sarah's mother) ordered the Seafood Menu. John and I ordered the wine flights perfectly paired to go with our meals. Each menu was about 6 - 7 courses long. Before each course, the item was broken down for us so that we knew what it was called and what was in it. This went the same for the wine and it was pointed out why each wine went well with the dish we were about to enjoy. In between meals, "The Bread Guy" would come around with a selection of very tasty breads that we would take advantage of whenever we could find him. John and I joked that he was probably the best paid bread man in town.
The presentation of the dishes was done to perfection. In fact, while placing the dishes in front of us, a couple times the plates were bumped and the platings were undone. The servers immediately took the course back to be re-plated for us so we could eat with our eyes as well as our mouths. One other thing we noticed was the number of plates used per dish. Our first dish which was a broth that prepared our taste buds for the meal, was served on a stack of no less than 5 dishes of varying sizes. Not only does Lumière have the highest paid "Bread Man", but I have reason to believe that they also have one of the highest paid dishwashers in town as well. We also received fresh cutlery before each course, and if we needed to leave to do our business, we would find our napkin perfectly folded again when we returned, and my glass was refilled with sparkling water called "Antipodes". If they refill your glass with it every time you run out, $9.50 per bottle is worth it in my opinion, and they only charged us for one.
Overall the meal was very good, but unfortunately, it wasn't as memorable as I would have hoped. The wine parings were perfect, and the service was par excellence, but even the foie gras dish, and I love foie gras, didn't leave a lasting impression with me. The only thing I found memorable was the tower of home made cookies and jellies at the end. WEST gave us each a single jellie and sent us packing. It wasn't that the food was bad. Far from it. But as John and I were discussing, it may be that because at WEST the Executive Chef's main focus is on the food, the food really shines. At Lumière we could literally taste the distance that was forming between Rob and his restaurant. In fact, we were hoping to get a picture with Rob that evening, but he was out of town for a prior engagement. We're pretty sure that the Exectutive Chef at WEST was in there slugging it out with his sous chefs on a busy Friday evening.
This is not to say that Rob Feenie is not an exceptional culinary master. He is! He's an Iron Chef Slayer after all! But I think that with such publicity from being a celebrity chef, if you are not going to be able to work with your team, you need to step down and let another chef run the show. You can't manage a kitchen from a television set, or from a test kitchen in Italy. If he's going to be an owner promoting his business, he can't be the executive chef. Not unless he can settle for number two year after year. I also think that his partner may be pushing him too hard. When I was at Feenies, I sat at the table beside Rob's partner, David Sidoo. From what I overheard, David had huge plans for Rob, doing commercials, special engagements. Just really big things. Meanwhile, I saw Rob run between the Lumière kitchen and the Feenies kitchen with huge bags under his eyes, looking like he was about to collapse.
Despite excellent service, very good food and atmosphere, the food was the weakest link and I do have to recognize Vancouver Magazines second place rating of Lumière is accurate and agree that WEST is BEST when it come to food. Rob says that his food is his way of speaking to us, and what I'm hearing is that the focus has shifted away from the food, and to being a celebrity chef/owner that isn't in his kitchen very much anymore. The only thing I'm trying to figure out is whether or not he is telling us this because he is begging for help and is overwhelmed, or just broadcasting that his focus has shifted.
When it came time to pay the bill, our table's total came out to over $1300. $500 of it was for Kelly and myself: a new record. What I found a bit offensive was the tipping. It was included as a service charge of 18% on our bill. I would have tipped 20% this evening because of the excellent service Simon gave us. Though they specify that tables of 6 or more receive an automatic service charge, I firmly believe that tipping is not an entitlement. It was a bit cheesy to do that and in a restaurant like this, it is expected that the service is going to be great. Are you saying that service may not be great by including it?
In the rest of the world, tipping is for service over and above the call of duty. In some places, it is actually offensive because if you tip, it means you look down on your server's station in life. No where else on the planet is it so blatantly treated as an entitlement as it is here. Do you tip if you get poor service? Most of us just tip anyway out of habit, and by doing so, you are making it OK to give poor service. It also hurts people that give excellent service like Simon did this evening. Had they not specified the service charge, Simon and his team would have been tipped more.
As we enjoyed the last bit of our dessert and coffee, the Valet was once again unable to start my car. I found this amusing. I wasn't mad at all because I found it funny that Kelly can drive my car; she steals it when she wants to have a bit of fun. The owners mom at the tire store could not only start my car, she even backed it into the garage. Yet the Valet at Lumière couldn't. I had to run down to the garage with him to grab my car. He just couldn't get the key to turn and was totally embarrassed when I did it right in front of him for the second time. Poor guy.
I hope Rob finds his true food voice again or lets go so that he can promote himself and the restaurant while a new chef takes the restaurant to new heights. The next stop sometime in the New Year will be "C" restaurant, Vancouver's number three fine dining establishment, and home of Robert Clark, Vancouver Magazine's Top Chef of 2006.